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Great books worth the read

Alice Hampson on Unsplash
Alice Hampson on Unsplash

With dozens of newly published filling bookstores and libraries every month, the inevitable result of ‘what shall I read’ is like being lost in a maze. So take a break from the bestseller lists and instead ferret out the earliest works of famous and prolific authors; the ones whose names come so easily to mind. What was their first book and was their talent obvious?

At the pinnacle of our Canadian authors is surely Margaret Atwood, that doyen of prose, poetry and every other form of the written word you care to mention.

The Edible Woman, published in 1969, tells the story of a young woman whose structured world begins to slip out of focus.  Funny and engaging, a 1970 Kirkus review called it ‘a first novel of genuine style’ and ‘a genuine pleasure to read’. It certainly heralded a writing career like few others. I first read it shortly after arriving in Canada in the eighties and remember admiring the writing as I enjoyed the story much more than I did her later distinctly dystopian works. 

Louise Penny left the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1996 to write, but the historical novel she had begun just wasn’t working, so she switched to mystery. Still Life, published in 2005, introduces us to the now famous but entirely invented small Quebec village of Three Pines and Chief Inspector Gamache, who is modelled on her late husband. Still Life placed second out of 800 entries in the "Debut Dagger" competition in the United Kingdom. A fair indication of the quality of the 19 books to come and well worth a reread, even if you have read it before.

On the other hand, Farley Mowat’s first book, The People of the Deerpublished in 1952, was received with almost universal hostility by North America’s newspaper reviewers. The Hudson’s Bay Company even threatened to sue. It wasn’t until much later that this book about his travels through Canada’s barren lands, became showered with praise – from the international press. Sometimes a prophet is indeed without honour in his own country! Certainly, Mowat provides glimpses of places most of us will never visit and as one recent reader put it even that first work of his provides ‘a warning to us all’ about caring for this vast country of ours.

Mowat went on to publish another 19 books, sold more than 17 million copies with translation into 52 languages. For glimpse into the past, try this one.

Medicine River by Thomas Kingpublished in 1989, is a homecoming novel chronicling the lives of a group of contemporary indigenous people. Will enters a small close-knit community in Western Canada a foreigner, eventually becoming part of its life; a gentle tale yet awash with human drama. Just the book to curl up with. It was later adapted as a television movie and even now is frequently included in high school curriculums. King has gone on to write another 25 books, from poems and children’s tales, as well as acting in the wonderful CBC radio drama The Dead Dog Cafe.

Deja Dead by Kathy Reichs was first published in 1997 and the start of a truly awesome writing career. No, she’s not Canadian, but as a forensic anthropologist, spends part of each year in Montreal. If you read nothing else of hers, for down the years her books have become decidedly more gruesome, read this debut.

Deja Dead introduces us to Dr. Temperance Brennan who must solve the crime of who killed and meticulously dismembered a murdered female. It is such a page-turner; this 400-page whodunnit has even been read at one sitting during a very long international flight. No wonder it won the 1998 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.  Reichs has gone on to write another 20 as well as several technical books.

The Man with No Face by Peter May is not this prolific crime writer’s latest in his oeuvre of more than 20 novels, crime stories and screenwriting for television. This murder mystery was one of the Scotsman’s earliest forays into the writing life; pre-internet, mobile phones and social media generally.  

I had no intention of reviewing it when I picked it up, I just wanted a good read, and that is exactly what I got on entering the world of a jaded Scottish reporter sent to Belgium to dig up political dirt, only to find danger instead. An English cabinet minister and a fellow journalist have been murdered, and the assassinations were witnessed by an autistic child.

A promising start, heightened by a first chapter written from the point of view of a ‘killer for hire’. No wonder May’s publisher suggested republication a year or so ago. And in the process gave your reviewer an idea! 

So next time you are stuck for a good read, check out an author’s list of previous books. You will find the list on the second page of the book. They are usually listed chronologically. Take a look!